Union College should consider payment to city, but only after changes are made

In columns and opinion pieces, I am on record as supporting a PILOT once the city eliminates manager
The 300 block of Seward Place is seen in 2004. Union College now owns the entire block of houses (gazette file photo).
The 300 block of Seward Place is seen in 2004. Union College now owns the entire block of houses (gazette file photo).

Should Union College make a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT)?

The mayor says “yes”; Union, citing its economic impact on the community, says “no.” As a taxpayer, who, like all Schenectady taxpayers, pays too much for too little in services, I should support anything that reduces taxes.

Do I support a PILOT? Yes and no.

In columns and opinion pieces, I am on record as supporting a PILOT once the city eliminates managerial inefficiencies and waste from its budget.

From 1990 to 2005, I was president of Union. Since then, I have not discussed policy with anyone at the college. I am not defending Union now; however, Schenectadians deserve the facts.

The New York State Constitution exempts colleges (and other non-profits) from taxation. Under Section XVI, “exemptions may be altered or repealed except those exempting real or personal property used exclusively for religious, educational or charitable purposes.” Unless the Constitution is amended, Union cannot be taxed and need not make a PILOT.

The mayor argues GE and the Golub Corporation make PILOTs. Unfortunately, he is mixing apples and pumpkins. Incentives offered by the city to for-profits are different from voluntary contributions to the city by non-profits.

Mr. McCarthy questioned the way the College Park neighborhood was revitalized.

In his view, I should have used the Empire Zone program (that provides tax benefits to qualifying businesses). He is wrong: The cost of borrowing would have been significantly higher; the benefits (by his own admission) decrease over time; and, importantly, the use of an outside party to manage college property is inconsistent with a first-rate residential college.

Not surprisingly, Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo supports the mayor. To her, the fire and police departments should be reimbursed for the (bogus) $700,000 incurred annually responding to calls at Union. She (and he) is perhaps unaware colleges must notify fire departments when an alarm activates a building’s entire system; however, the law does require departments to respond to the call. Why? Perhaps because legislators recognized college students engage in pranks and pull fire alarms.

During my 15 years at Union, we had one instance requiring the fire department. The college’s fire control officer told the department not to come in every other instance. Unlike fire departments in other college towns, it chose to do so.

As for police calls, I asked the police to wait for a call from us, and the police department agreed. My request stemmed from police cars driving through campus and causing concern among students. From that point forward, the police did not, as I recall, ever come on campus, since we never requested assistance.

So, I guess, the argument is the fire and police departments provide unwanted and unnecessary services, and the city wants to be compensated for them. Wasteful and nonsensical? I think so.

The mayor conveniently forgets that neither the Golub headquarters nor the casino and harbor development would have occurred without the College Park revitalization. Don’t take my word; ask the developer. Before those developments could occur, Union first had to clean up the toxic brownfield that occupied the area and rebuild the structurally unsound Ramada Inn.

Also forgotten by the mayor are funds owed Union for taxes paid under protest, when the city unconstitutionally assessed the college for property owned on Lenox Road. In court, Union was awarded nearly $1 million. Rather than make the city repay the college, we had the city put the funds into the Seward streetscape.

On my watch, Union invested $26 million in the College Park neighborhood. As a percentage of assets, the investment dwarfed what any other college, to the best of my knowledge, had spent in its community. It was not an easy “sell” to my board.

My responsibility was to protect and advance the college, which I tried over 15 years to do. I recognized, though, a crime-filled neighborhood adjacent to Union was hurting the college. Few on my board, though, felt it was a good investment of college funds to turn around the neighborhood.

After much discussion, the board ultimately agreed to the investment—first on Seward Place and Huron Street (which the city honored me by renaming for me), then on the polluted brownfield and Ramada Inn.

Would the board have agreed, if I had done what the mayor suggests? Never. I could not justify using college funds to paper over managerial inefficiencies and waste, and I presume my successor cannot, either. Much as I want to see tax reductions, a Union PILOT is unjustified until those issues are addressed.

I suggest the mayor do his job first. Eliminate waste; jettison unnecessary fire and police calls; and reject wasteful projects like the Foster Avenue facility that cost taxpayers dearly.

I would love to pay lower — far lower — taxes. Yes, Union should make a PILOT — after the mayor does the job he was elected to do.

Roger H. Hull is president emeritus of Union College, where he served as president from 1990-2005. He is currently president of the Help Yourself Foundation, a Schenectady-based nonprofit serving the educational needs of disadvantaged children. He was a candidate for mayor of Schenectady in 2011 and 2015.

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